This is the fourth chapter of a nine-chapter serial story to be published weekly in NeXt. The story is about life in America leading up to and during the War of 1812. Place names in this story are given and spelled as they were in 1813.
Our story so far: Angered by the beatings Caleb receives at home, the soldiers in Forsyth's Rifles are allowing him to come with them to their base at Sackets Harbor.
Chapter Four / On the Trail
A thaw set in the morning the soldiers left for Sackets Harbor, and the wet, slushy snow built up on the sledge's runners, slowing the group and forcing the soldiers to help the horses, pushing and rocking to get it over the deep, muddy ruts of the road.
But what was bad luck for the soldiers helped Caleb; he could stay behind and stay out of sight of Sgt. Adams, who was at the front of the column, trudging through the gray fog. As each new group of men came back to take the places of those who were tired, he simply kept low and remained the shortest person behind the loaded sledge.
They were five hours out of Fordsburgh before Adams himself came back to see how the men were doing and spotted the boy among them.
"He's going to help us with cooking and firewood and such," Cpl. Daley said quickly. "He won't carry a gun or get anywhere near any battles."
Adams looked back up the road in the direction they had come. Despite the thaw, it was still plenty cold and a long walk back, and, too, there was a chance of meeting the British or their native allies. He couldn't send the boy home alone.
"This isn't a nursery school," he said. "Detail two men to take him back."
"Once we get to Sackets Harbor, there will be plenty of other civilians," Private Clark spoke up. "There would be women to watch out for him, if he couldn't stay with us." Adams glared at him, and Clark dropped his eyes to the ground.
Adams looked back at the corporal, and then at the faces of the other soldiers and saw in their eyes that they all were on the boy's side.
As he paused, Daley turned to Caleb. "Take your shirt off," he said.
Caleb stared at his feet, embarrassed to have the men arguing with Adams over him, and ashamed to show his back.
"Either show him what you've got now, or go on back for more," Daley said. As Caleb's eyes met his, he gave the boy a nod of grim encouragement.
Caleb dropped his knapsack and bedroll into the snow and peeled off his wool coat. Then he grabbed his thick linsey-woolsey shirt with both hands, pulling it up over his head.
He turned his back to the sergeant, still with the shirt over his arms, and felt the cold air on the swollen welts and open cuts where the strokes of the hazel rod had slashed his back. He glanced over his shoulder and saw again the look of pity mixed with disgust that he'd seen on the face of John Gabriel, and he felt again the shame.
"Put your coat back on, MacKenzie," Adams said.
"MacCrimmons, sir," Caleb said quietly. "That was my father's name: MacCrimmons."
The sergeant nodded. "You're in charge of the boy," he said to Daley. "We'll see what happens when we get to Sackets Harbor."
He headed back toward the front of the column as one soldier handed Caleb his coat and another picked up his knapsack.
"Don't ever be ashamed of what's happened to you in the past, Caleb MacCrimmons," Daley said. "Just worry about what you let people do to you in the future."
Caleb slipped into his coat and put his arms through the straps of his knapsack. The rest of the column had begun to move forward and he, Daley and the two privates helping him gather up his gear were left behind a short distance.
As he started to shift his bedroll into place over his knapsack, Daley suddenly put a hand on it to stop him from moving, and gestured for silence. Caleb looked back at the road behind them, where the others were facing.
The privates took their rifles from their shoulders and each dropped to one knee, peering through the gray mist. Honest travelers would make noise, but someone was trying to move quietly. They glanced at Daley and one of them uncorked his powder flask and primed his pan.
There was a flash of motion behind a tree, of someone starting to look out, then hiding again. Then there were the twin clicks of two hammers being pulled back, as the soldiers cocked their rifles and made ready to fire.
And motion again, and then Caleb stepped forward. "Wait," he said to the soldiers. He walked a few feet back on the road, looking intently at the tree.
"Come out before you get your head blown off," he said at last, and turned to walk back to the men, as his stepbrother Alex came from behind the tree.
"I'm coming with you," Alex announced.
Caleb looked at the tote sack he was carrying. "Where's your bedroll?" he asked.
"I didn't have time," Alex said. "I told Pa you'd run away to Ogdensburgh and he went up there to fetch you back, and I figured I'd better get moving."
"We're sleeping in the snow tonight, and probably tomorrow night as well," Caleb said. "What were you thinking of, coming without blankets?" Then he looked at Daley and the others, and at the column of soldiers disappearing around a bend in the road ahead. "Oh, Alex, what were you thinking of at all?"
"Come on," Daley said. "But keep him out of the sergeant's sight or I'll send you both home myself."
NOTE: "Freehand" will not run in NeXt next week, but will continue with Chapter 5 on March 1, when someone important becomes interested in Caleb's artwork.
Made available through the support of the New York Newspapers Foundation and funding from New York State United Teachers. Text copyright 2012, Mike Peterson. Illustrations copyright 2012, Christopher Baldwin.
The author has created a companion blog for readers to offer comments or ask questions. It can be found at http://www.weeklystorybook.com/freehand.